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A Historical Overview of the US Supreme Court's Rulings on Marriage

Updated on April 26, 2016

US Supreme Court Building

This is the building in which the US Supreme Court meets.
This is the building in which the US Supreme Court meets.

US Supreme Court Seeks to Define Marriage

The United States has been trying to define marriage for more than 150. The struggle to define marriage, and implement appropriate laws regarding marriage, started in 1862. Over the last century and a half, the United States Supreme Court has been involved in making decisions on bigamy and polygamy, interracial marriage, the use of contraceptives between unmarried persons, spousal permission for abortions, spousal rape, and same-sex Marriage. This is a brief history of the cases and decisions that have been made by the US Supreme Court in the United States' journey to its current definition of marriage.

The US Supreme Court on Polygamy

The Morrill Anti-bigamy act was signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on July 8, 1862. It banned polygamy and limited church and non-profit ownership to $50,000 in any territory of the United States. The Morrill Act was difficult to enforce because of the setup of the judicial system in Utah and a lack of funds to prosecute offenders.

The Poland act was passed in 1874. It eliminated the control members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the group targeted by the anti-polygamy laws, had over the justice system of Utah Territory, which allowed for the prosecuting of Mormon polygamists. The Poland Act also eliminated the offices of territorial marshal and attorney, giving their responsibilities to a US Marshal and a US attorney.

In 1878, in the case of Reynolds versus the United States, George Reynolds, secretary to Governor Brigham Young, who was the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints appealed his conviction of polygamy by the Morrill Anti-bigamy act on the grounds that the act unconstitutionally encroached on his religious freedoms.

The United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the Morrill Anti-bigamy act was constitutional and did not violate the religious freedom act of the first amendment. The court stated that the first amendment protected religious belief, but it did not protect religious practices that the courts determined criminal. Therefore, just as laws could be enacted against human sacrifice as a religious practice, laws could be enacted against polygamy.

  • First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

In 1882, the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882, was signed by Chester A. Arthur. This act made polygamy a felony. It also outlawed bigamous or unlawful cohabitation as a misdemeanor, which allowed prosecution for polygamy without proof that a marriage actually occurred. The act forbade polygamists or women cohabitating with polygamists from voting, serving on juries, or holding political office.

In 1885, Murphy v. Ramsey was brought before the Supreme Court, arguing that the Edmunds Anti-Polygamy Act of 1882 violated Clause 3 of Section 9 of Article 1 of the US constitution, which forbids ex post facto laws. Ex post facto laws are laws that retroactively punish people who broke them before the law was passed. The clause states:

  • Article 1, Section 9, Clause 3: “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed."

The defendant argued that the law was unconstitutional because it prevented bigamists and polygamists who had married their plural wives before the law was passed, from voting. The United States Supreme Court ruled the act was constitutional because it prevented people who were currently living in polygamous relationships from voting and did not refer to when the marriage was solemnized.

The Edmunds-Tucker Act was passed in 1887. It disincorporated both the Perpetual Emigration Fund and the LDS Church for fostering polygamy and permitted the confiscation of funds, land and assets valued more than a limit of $50,000. It made polygamy punishable with a fine of $500-$800 and a jail sentence of up to 5 years, annulled territorial laws allowing illegitimate children to inherit, required civil marriage licenses, repealed common law spousal privileges for polygamists-which forced wives to testify against their husbands.

The seizures of property that occurred under the Edmunds-Tucker Act were deemed constitutional in The Late Corporation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints v. United States in 1890. Under the act the government had the ability to seize roughly $3 million in assets. Temples and other real estate were never actually seized and a reported $381,812 was taken. It was returned to the church in 1893 by a congressional resolution after the Church issued the Manifesto, which ended Polygamy in the church in 1890.

In 2010, the US Supreme Court ruled in the case of Brown v. Buhman, brought by the family that stars in the reality TV show, Sister Wives, that part of Utah’s law which banned multiple cohabitation was unconstitutional. The court allowed Utah to keep its ban on multiple marriage licenses.

US Supreme Court Rules on Interracial Marriage

This is a picture of a newspaper headline about the 1967 US Supreme Court ruling that declared a Floridian law that forbade interracial co-habitation unconstitutional.
This is a picture of a newspaper headline about the 1967 US Supreme Court ruling that declared a Floridian law that forbade interracial co-habitation unconstitutional. | Source

The US Supreme Court on Interracial Marriage, Cohabitation and Sexual Relations

In 1883, the United States Supreme Court affirmed that Alabama’s anti-miscegenation statute, which prohibited interracial marriage, cohabitation and sexual relations, was constitutional. The court claimed that the act did not violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because white and black people were punished equally.

  • Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

In 1948, the Supreme Court of California declared that interracial bans on marriage violated the equal protection clause. However, it wasn’t until 1964 before the United States Supreme Court would overturn their 1883 ruling. The ruling permitting laws that prohibited interracial marriages was finally overturned in McLaughlin v. Florida in 1964 and Loving v. Virginia in 1967. McLaughlin v. Florida declared a Floridian law that prohibited habitual cohabitation between two people of opposite genders, if one was black and the other white, unconstitutional. McLaughlin v. Florida declared a Virginian law forbidding interracial sex, cohabitation and marriage was unconstitutional.

It wasn’t until 2000 that the last state, Alabama, removed the ban on interracial cohabitation or marriage from its state constitution.

The US Supreme Court on Contraceptive Use by Unmarried Persons

In 1972, the Supreme Court overturned laws prohibiting unmarried couples from buying and or possessing contraception in the case of Eisenstadt v. Baird. Specifically, they struck down a Massachusetts law, because it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

The US Supreme Court on Spousal Permission for Abortions

In 1976, in the case Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, the US Supreme Court declared laws requiring a parent’s consent, in the case of a minor, or spousal consent, in the case of a married woman, for an abortion were unconstitutional.

It wasn’t until 1993 that all 50 states had laws against marital rape.

US Supreme Court that legalized Gay Marriage

Front row, from left: Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  Back row, from left: Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan
Front row, from left: Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Back row, from left: Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer, Samuel Alito Jr. and Elena Kagan | Source

The US Supreme Court on Gay Marriage

Baker v. Nelson was heard by the Minnesota Supreme Court in 1971. The Court upheld a state law that limited marriage to persons of the opposite gender. The defendant appealed to the Supreme Court saying the law violated their right to marry as protected in the due process clause of the fourteenth amendment, discriminated on gender against the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and deprived them of their fight to privacy as protected by the ninth amendment. The US Supreme Court dismissed the case saying it didn’t have substantial federal question.

Maryland became the first state to define marriage as “between a man and a woman” in 1973. Three states outlawed same-sex marriage by statutes in 1975

  • Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
  • Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment:[N]or shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . .
  • Ninth Amendment:The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

In 1996 Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act into law. It declared same-sex marriage unconstitutional, that marriage throughout the US was defined as between a man and a woman and states had the right to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages solemnized in other states.

In 2009, the US Supreme court overturned California’s Proposition 8 in the case of Hollingsworth v. Perry. Prop 8, which banned same-sex marriage, was found unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated both the due process and equal protection clauses of the US constitution.

Section Three of the Defense of Marriage Act, which allowed states to refuse to recognize same-sex marriages solemnized in other states, was ruled unconstitutional in 2013 in the case United States v. Windsor. Edith Windsor sought to claim the federal estate tax exemption for surviving spouses when she inherited the estate of her deceased wife, Thea Spyer, to whom she had been legally married in Canada. She was refused and filed this lawsuit as a result.

On June 26, in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, the US Supreme Court ruled that the fourteenth amendment requires states to license marriages between two people of the same sex and to recognize the marriage between two people of the same sex when their marriage was lawfully licensed and solemnized out of state.

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Video on Understanding Prop 8 Created by YesOnProp8California

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    • bradmasterOCcal profile image

      bradmasterOCcal 22 months ago from Orange County California

      The SC hasn't made a valid decision since it was created, and the 5-4 decisions should all be overturned. A SC decision becomes the law of the land, and yet it only takes a one justice difference. While ignoring the legal knowledge and expertise of four dissenting justices.

      Something as important as the law of the land should have more backing than a simple majority.

      While a five to four SC decision decides the case, it doesn't solve the issues brought before the court. Roe v Wade from 1974 is still in controversy across the country. It comes up every president elections.

    • kbdressman profile image
      Author

      kbdressman 2 years ago from Harlem, New York

      I'm glad you enjoyed it, HSchneider and serenityjmiller! It was an interesting journey to put my personal beliefs and feelings aside, zoom out a ways through the lens of history and and approach the issue from a purely legal standpoint. It's amazing how sensational and confusing an issue can become if you let personal beliefs and the media cloud an otherwise fairly simple legal decision.

    • serenityjmiller profile image

      Serenity Miller 2 years ago from Brookings, SD

      Excellent work and detailed information. Few bother to consider the historical context and instead jump to the "sky is falling" reactionary stance. The reality is that the issue has been building for quite some time, and we're really not seeing anything new. Thank you for sharing.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 2 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      Excellent Hub detailing the Supreme Court's long history of trying to define marriage. You are correct that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment has been key in many of their rulings including the latest on same sex marriage. Great work, kbdressman.

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